Late last year I suffered a book-borrowing frenzy. That afternoon, I exited the Rizal Library carrying a stack of four books: Don Quixote, The Reader, Flights of Love, and The Remains of the Day. I finished this last one sometime last week, and I have to say that out of all those books, I enjoyed it the most. Because of it, I am now halfway through Kazuo Ishiguro’s other novel Never Let Me Go.
The Remains of the Day is narrated by Stevens, an old-fashioned English butler embarking on a leisurely drive through the countryside. As he looks back on his thirty years of service to Lord Darlington, he recalls certain memories and ruminates on their past implications as well as subsequent significance in his life. These recollections are triggered by a letter from Miss Kenton, a former housekeeper with whom Stevens had a close personal relationship until her retirement more than twenty years earlier, and whom he plans to visit for “professional reasons” before the end of his motoring trip.
The book finds a unique narrative voice in Stevens, who has a charismatic, roundabout manner of speech in perfect keeping with his character. His speech portrays him as a charming, prudish old man incapable of casual socialization despite his exemplary skills in social grace. He is the kind of man who uses words like “evidently” and “ultimately” too often, who spends hours contemplating the concept of “dignity.” This he values above all else as the final, great-making quality of a butler. Based on this principle, he leads a life of absolute professionalism at the risk of personal dishonesty, and finds its results in tremendous unhappiness.
Whatever the blurbs say, the most striking relationship I found in this book is not the one between Stevens and Lord Darlington, but between him and Miss Kenton. The author illustrates their charming romance through curiously veiled dialogues that force the reader to look between lines for hints of true feeling. And even for Stevens, it is only towards the end that he sees the truth in all those years of pretending. The book closes with his solitary reflections on “the remains of the day”: how he arrived at that point in his life, why he’s still there, and what comfort he can take from the situation. Quietly heartbreaking and poignant beyond words, it is a novel never to forget.
I have heard people describe the moment, when setting sail in a ship, when one finally loses sight of the land.
‘Stevens, are you all right?’ ‘Yes, sir. Perfectly.’ ‘You look as though you’re crying.’
‘Why, Mr. Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?’
‘You are increasingly tired now, Miss Kenton. It used not to be an excuse you needed to resort to.’
Rather, it was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one’s relationship with Miss Kenton; an indefinite number of further opportunities in which to remedy the effect of this or that misunderstanding. There was surely nothing to indicate at the time that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever irredeemable.
Indeed—why should I not admit it?—at that moment, my heart was breaking.
All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really—one has to ask oneself—what dignity is there in that?